What is hang time?
Some people may think hang time refers to how long you stand at the tasting room bar while sipping through the wine list. Among serious wine country travelers, it's something to be proud of. In the winegrowing world, it can also be a subject of pride, but, thankfully, for a more meaningful reason.
Hang time is all about grape ripeness. With recent trends toward more concentrated, bolder and more alcoholic red wines, winegrowers work hard at choosing the timing of the perfect day to pick grapes at harvest so that they get the ripest grapes possible, without being overripe, or with too high a sugar level. Allowing grapes to hang on the vine longer before picking can add fine qualities to a wine, but it’s not without risk.
Relatively speaking, very ripe grapes produce a very high sugar level, which ferments to a very high alcohol level. But while sugar levels, measured on a scale called Brix, rise inside the grape, the acidity decreases. Acidity is important because it’s what gives a wine freshness and a lively fruitiness. So, achieving the optimal balance of sugar and acidity at the time the grapes are picked is generally the primary objective.
Grapes are typically picked when Brix readings are anywhere between 22 and 28 degrees, depending on the grape variety and the desires of the winemaker. Waiting for higher sugar levels means the possibility of the grapes becoming overripe, causing an unpleasant quality in the wine or else problems with fermentations that tend to be slow, or stop altogether.
So, if you think of the growing season as the amount of time grapes remain on the vine, from bud break in the spring to picking time at harvest, then “hang time” is generally defined as the amount of time grapes remain on the vine after reaching a sugar level of about 24 Brix.
Wine regions with warm but not very hot days and cool afternoons and evenings, like Monterey County, have a longer growing season than warmer regions – up to a month longer when you take into consideration early budding and late ripening. They are therefore capable of enjoying more hang time for the grapes. Stretching out the growing season allows the grapes to develop more intense flavor, color and complexity, characteristics of great wines.
Although measuring ripeness has been debated over the years, most people rely upon scientific measurements of sugar, acid and pH levels in the grapes. Others simply taste and examine the berries, seeds and skins, checking for physiological maturity. Regardless of how it is measured, there is little disagreement among winemakers as to the value of grape hang time and its impact on their grapes.
Len Napolitano lives in San Luis Obispo County and is certified in wine by the Society of Wine Educators, Wine & Spirits Education Trust and Chicago Wine School and continually gains knowledge from his frequent contact with California winemakers. More information is on his website, www.wineology.com.
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